Movie Review: "Dancing Across Borders"

May 13, 2010

For many young dancers, being noticed by a wealthy benefactor who sees greatness in your skills would be a gift—especially if that person had strong ties to the ballet world. And surely Anne Bass, a former School of American Ballet board member and balletomane, believed that bringing a 16-year-old Cambodian boy to the United States to study ballet was an act of generosity. At least, that is how it’s portrayed in the documentary Dancing Across Borders, which Bass directed. But watching the film, there’s little indication that Sokvannara Sar (known to friends and family as Sy) had any desire to learn ballet. Rather, he seems motivated by the belief that going to America would provide financial assistance for his family. While he achieves remarkable success—becoming an apprentice with Pacific Northwest Ballet after just a few years of training—he seems ambivalent about his new life.

Bass first spotted Sy while on a trip to Cambodia with the World Monuments Fund in 2000. He was dancing with the Wat Bo School of Traditional Dance at Preah Khan, a temple in Angkor, Cambodia, and Bass saw something special. In the film, she talks about his “spirit,” but also about his frame, his legs, and his height, all of which (to her) seem perfectly suited to ballet. After receiving permission from his parents, who act on the advice of Sy’s dance instructor, Bass brings Sy to New York and tries to get him enrolled at SAB. But without any prior training, he is turned down. Bass isn’t deterred. She hires a private coach, Olga Kostritzky, a highly regarded ballet teacher and veteran SAB faculty member. With Olga, Sy progresses quickly—but he’s also completely isolated. Day-in and day-out, Sy and Olga work in the studio alone. It’s hard to imagine any teenager enjoying that process, let alone one who has left behind everything familiar.

While training, Sy attends the Professional Children’s School in Manhattan. The lively boy with plenty of friends in his home country is again alone, trying to assimilate but struggling to find his place. In the film, Bass talks about Sy trying to meet people and admits it took some time. You expect her to say six months, maybe a year. When she says it took about four years for him to find true friends, your heart breaks.

Sy seems happiest when reading books and eating dinner with a Cambodian family in the Bronx (who he met through his translator). These scenes are fleeting, but you get a glimpse of the effervescent “spirit” that must have caught Bass’s eye.

Its unclear whether Sy ever develops a true passion for ballet. But obviously, Bass felt the need to convey this sentiment to the audience: She tells us that Sy told her he loves ballet and therefore, she must believe him. She doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that he feels pressure to please his sponsor.

In the film, Sy and Bass return to Cambodia. By this point, his English is strong and his ballet career is blossoming. But Sy still seems lost. He says that in that in the U.S., he doesn’t feel completely at home because it’s not where he grew up and he doesn’t quite fit in. Yet, being back in Cambodia, he realizes he’s no longer at home there either. His friends and family treat him differently. “I don’t belong anywhere,” Sy says. Was that Bass’s hope for him?